As certain cities and states around the country begin to loosen COVID-19 restrictions starting this week, some restaurants will begin the arduous process of reopening their dining rooms after five weeks or more of coronavirus closures.
But what will these openings look like? American operators can look toward China, where the recovery process began in April and businesses have opened their doors again as restrictions were lifted.
In China, there are still many rules and regulations in place to keep the general population safe and healthy — from temperature checks and limiting guest capacities to asking guests to sign waivers before stepping foot into a restaurant. Here are some lessons American operators can learn from restaurant owners and one restaurant designer operating in China.
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Temperature checks and mandatory facial coverings are the norm.
When a guest enters Yardbird Hong Kong — named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants — an employee wearing a mask points a (digital thermometer) gun at their head and the guest is turned away if they have a fever or if they are not wearing a facial mask. When they’re shown to their seats, every single server, host, and cook is wearing a mask and guests can only remove their masks once they start eating or drinking.
“All servers are masked, many are gloved as well and there is always a big bottle of alcohol hand sanitizer at the entrance — guests are expected to use it,” said Sean Dix, an international interior architect and designer who has redesigned restaurants in China for a post-COVID-19 world. “Also, in many restaurants there are small bottles of hand sanitizer on every table. Some of the more local places have even switched to prepackaged disposable chopsticks, utensils and napkins.”
Restaurant operators are rethinking their layout.
Most restaurants in China are required to cap the number of guests at 50% capacity, with four diners per party maximum. Dix, for example, said that he has been installing temporary table dividers to make social distancing easier for restaurants with communal seating or larger tables like Yardbird. Other restaurants — most notably cafes with extensive seating — have roped off or labeled off-limit seating that’s situated too close together.
But Black Sheep Restaurants — a restaurant group with 25 locations in Hong Kong and one in Shanghai — is looking for more permanent solutions than just caution tape and flimsy table dividers.
“We are working with our architects and looking into more permanent floorplan changes and partition screens between tables,” Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants s said. “We have also been monitoring the news coming out regarding air conditioning spreading the virus, while at the moment it does not seem conclusive, we are looking at the airflow within the restaurants and what our options are regarding air filtration systems.”
Black Sheep Restaurants has also recently posted a comprehensive 17-page guide for operating a restaurant with dine-in service during and after the pandemic, both for use in their own restaurants and to help others transitioning to full-service again. Besides table distancing measures, Black Sheep is also placing small paper bags with Black Sheep stickers on them for hygienic storage of guest masks during their meals.
Guests sign waivers and wear quarantine bracelets.
China’s mandatory quarantine bracelets and dine-in contracts would set off privacy alarms in the U.S. Although many of China’s sanitation operations procedures for businesses seem like no-brainers, from wearing masks to doling out hand sanitizer, some of the initiatives might not work well in a freedom-loving democracy like America.
For example, many restaurants, including Yardbird and Black Sheep, are requiring customers to sign a contract upon entering that promises that they do not have coronavirus, have not had direct contact with someone who was sick, and that they have not traveled over the past 14 days.
“Over here, they’re asking all diners to give their name, phone number and email address to [restaurants upon checking in], which would definitely be a privacy concern in America,” said Andrew Genung, journalist and founder of the restaurant industry newsletter Family Meal, who is living in Hong Kong. “I would be surprised if this type of thing wasn’t government mandated. Americans have such a fixation on privacy that it’s hard to imagine operators going through with [this kind of thing]. […] When I spoke to the folks at Yardbird, they said they had not had any problems with people resisting the form and that more people were getting upset that parties had to be four or fewer.”
The Hong Kong government-mandated quarantine tracker wristbands — which are used to track all incoming Hong Kong residents that have visited other countries and are supposed to quarantine for 14 days — are also used as part of the health and safety check-in procedures at restaurants.
“When you arrive home you must download and register on the app, Stay Home Safe, which is sent via text message from the government with a pin to activate,” a representative with Black Sheep Restaurants said. “You scan the QR code from your bracelet with the app and have one minute to set the perimeters of your apartment. If the bracelet or the phone leave the set perimeters, the app will set off an alarm and you need to scan the associated QR codes in order to reset the device. However, at least with the earlier versions of the bracelets, there did seem to be tech issues and there were a few incidents of people breaking quarantine and being spotted out on the town.”
Restaurant operators are investing heavily in training.
Recovery in China requires more than just buying boxes of masks and digital thermometers. Yardbird said that since Hong Kong started putting regulations in place since January, they are constantly updating their staff training to match the current government-sanctioned health and safety rules.
“The biggest monetary cost is the investment in sanitizers, masks and contactless thermometers, but the real cost is in the time and energy we have ploughed into creating procedures and ensuring that they are adhered to and followed every single day,” a Black Sheep Restaurants representative said, adding that they’ve implemented “extensive coaching” to be sure that staff knew how to handle certain situations, like if a customer refused to wear a mask or if they were breaking quarantine.
Restaurants are conveying over-the-top messages of cleanliness.
Communication with your guests is key, and the more you can go above and beyond to assure customers you’re doing everything you can to keep a clean and safe environment, the more likely your restaurant will be to survive the next phase of coronavirus recovery, operators in China said.
Some restaurants are even going to extreme lengths to appear germ-free. Shu Daxia Hot Pot — a Sichuan hot pot chain in China — has installed full-body disinfectant machines that spray guests upon entering the restaurant. Although there’s no evidence that a full-body disinfectant bath would prevent anything that a mask and gloves would not, it certainly looks cleaner.
Other restaurants are using more subtle techniques to keep their environment sterile.
“I accidentally dropped my mask in Carbone Hong Kong the other day and a server passing by our table saw it, cleared it away, and moments later returned with a new mask in a specially-designed Carbone paper bag,” Dix said.
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